If you think that misleading advertising and individuals without scruples exploiting women’s desires to look beautiful and young forever by selling them “miraculous” treatments of dubious efficacy are a modern phenomenon, think again. Women have always wanted to look beautiful and younger and in mid-Victorian London the trade of beauty products was already a very lucrative one.
At the time, cosmetics were frowned upon but women simply didn’t care. They were becoming more and more concerned about preserving and enhancing their natural beauty and so many turned to those who sold “beauty”. There were a lot of them around who advertised their magical creams and concoctions in the papers. One of the most famous and popular at the time was Madame Rachel, of Bond Street.
Who was Madame Rachel?
Madame Rachel, whose real name was Sarah Rachel Leverson, was born in 1806. An illiterate woman deserted by her husband, Sarah was a fish-fryer from the slums of Clement St Danes and later a dealer in second-hand clothes before entering the beauty business and opening a store in the smart Bond Street. Madame Rachel claimed she decided to start her career in beauty after her beautiful locks, of which she was very proud, were shaved off when she was ill with fever and a medical man told her he would give her a lotion that it’d make it grow back quickly and more beautiful than before. Apparently, the product worked and Madame Rachel decided to enter the beauty business herself. Soon, she made a fortune.
A professional beautifier
Madame Rachel claimed that she could restore youth to her clients and make ugly people look beautiful. She sold numerous beauty products, such as “Jordan Water”, “Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara, for removing Wrinkles” and “Venus’s Toilet”. Despite the exotic and intriguing names, they were just simple concoctions and some of the ingredients used were toxic too. Also very popular was her famous “enamelling process” which involved: removal of facial hair, followed by alkaline toilet washes, application of a thick paste (which usually included arsenic or white lead among its ingredients) to fill in wrinkles, and finally a touch of rouge and powder.
She also released a book, called Beautiful Forever, about “Female Grace and Beauty”, in 1863. Despite her products being very pricey (the “Jordan Water” cost £1500 in today’s money!) and just not as effective as they claimed to be (she also claimed she and her daughters were a lot older than they appeared), not to mention the dangerous ingredients they contained, she had lots of clients and made thousands of pounds a year. Some clients became addicted to her products and would spend enormous amounts of money on them, sometimes piling up debts they were unable to repay!
A trickster and a criminal
Had she stopped at that, she may have been able to live comfortably and tranquilly for the rest of her life. Instead, she engaged in more sinister activities too. It seems, for instance, that she would encourage her clients to take an Arabian bath and then would make men pay to spy on them! But what eventually got her into trouble was cheating vulnerable old spinsters out of their life savings by convincing them that aristocratic bachelors wanted to marry them. Obviously the marriages never took place. One of her victims was Mary Tucker Borradaile, a 43 year old widow.
Mary Tucker Borradaile first met Madame Rachel in 1864 and became a faithful client. Two years later, Madame Rachel suggested her to try a treatment, which cost £1000, that would make her beautiful forever. To convince her, Madame Rachel made the widow believe Lord Ranelaigh was in love with her and wanted to marry her. Mary believed her lies and paid, only to find out that her “lover” knew nothing of what was happening and had no intention of making her his wife. Madame Rachel was charged with obtaining money under false pretense. A trial ensued and she was found guilty. She spent 5 years in prison and, once out, she went back to her beauty business and sinister activities. She ended up in jail again and died there in 1880.
If you want to know more about Madame Rachel, then I highly recommend Beautiful For Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street – Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer by Helen Rappaport.